Judith Flanders’ “Christmas: A Biography” manages to be not only a timely history of the festive season but also an overdue re-evaluation of some of the common assumptions about it. Those who believe that a once religious event has been tarnished by our modern-day secular, capitalist society will quickly learn that from the earliest of days the focal point of Christmas for the majority was not the birth of Christ but the acts of eating, drinking and being merry. Similarly, anyone who considers their country’s yuletide customs to be the only true ones will discover again and again that Christmas is a “strange hybrid growth,” a composite of traditions and stories from far and wide.
Priming us with these preliminary thoughts, Flanders proceeds to lead us through the centuries, all the time pinpointing origins, tracing developments and debunking myths. From the Middle Ages on, we encounter all forms of revelry, often taken to excess. The earliest English carol was a drinking song. The majority of Christmas cards printed up until 1890 featured holly, snow and bells and, as a mere subcategory, “the occasional church steeple.”
By the 17th century, Christmas was recognized as a season, although it wasn’t until the 18th century that Father Christmas arrived on the scene. At the end of the 19th he had become, according to one American magazine, “our biggest captain of industry.” In her search for the creator of Santa Claus, Flanders weighs up some of the usual suspects and examines our English corruption of the Dutch Sint Nicolaas — before bringing in the more plausible Swiss-German equivalent Santi-Chlaus.
Flanders covers all areas in fine detail, whether the introduction of decorated indoor trees (1605), the “commercial innovation” of red-nosed Rudolph (1939) or the many sections on mouthwatering and stomach-churning food.
Flanders’ credits include several books about the Victorian era. It is clearly an area of expertise as her trawl through the 19th century in this book is particularly insightful. Along with an inevitable close reading of “A Christmas Carol” by that “king of the family hearth” Charles Dickens, Flanders provides two tales from one city — an account by a guest of a lavish London Christmas party and a behind-the-scenes record by an overloaded maid-of-all-work. It makes for fascinating if sobering reading and demonstrates that not all were able to regard Christmas as the season to be jolly.
Some aspects Flanders is unable to explain — the robin as a Christmas regular, Santa’s North Pole address and the significance of kissing under mistletoe. But by the end of her comprehensive and diverting study, we are all the wiser about wassailing, janneying and belsnickling, not to mention hogglers, callithumpians and Lords of Misrule.
Dickens says that his reformed Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well.” Flanders knows how to tell its story well, and her reader comes away with a better understanding of, and even deeper appreciation for, this magical time of the year.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Christmas: A Biography
By: Judith Flanders.
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 245 pages, $24.99.